Pasta Puttanesca

In high school, I made pasta puttanesca for the first time. My teacher gave us a take-home assignment to cook an authentic Italian dish, and my team drew the puttanesca. All I really remember about the assignment was the name “Pasta Puttanesca” and just how funny it was, and the horrendous idea that we would have to eat capers (yuck!) and olives (double yuck!) and anchovies (too disgusting even to think about). I actually thought it turned out pretty good, though I imagine if I had to eat a meal prepared by three high school kids with no cooking experience, you might hear a few double yucks from me now.

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I haven’t made pasta puttanesca since high school, but every time I’ve thought about it since then I’ve laughed — “Whore’s Pasta!” — gufaww! I’m laughing now. I guess jokes from your childhood have a way of making you smile. I find the name so funny that it was actually hard to cook it. I made joke after joke to Jim, who didn’t find them as funny as I did, and I even called a bunch of people to tell them I was making pasta puttanesca, hardy har har. I’m obviously regressing in leaps and bounds.

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But if reverting to a fourteen-year-old is the price for pasta puttanesca, I’ll pay it. Capers, olives, and anchovies all seem so delicious now; briny, oily, fishy — the stuff of my dreams! I’m rather ashamed of my 14-year-old self, sticking out my tongue at those lovely ingredients. And the name, whore’s pasta or street-walker’s pasta, or whatever it actually translates to in Italian, only adds to the greatness of the dish, adding a little sex to the tomatoes and chilies and big fat shrimp.

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To make a pasta puttanesca special, parsley is key. Use lots and lots of it. It’ll be the foil to the spice, the fish flavor, and the sweet tomatoes. Parsley brings it all together.

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I’ve heard that people don’t traditionally put cheese on their puttanesca, so we tried it without first. But a good block of parmigianno was in my fridge, and a load of pasta on my plate, and the combination proved too hard to resist. And I don’t really know why you wouldn’t want cheese in there; it was delicious melding with the spices, coating the shrimp. A good glug of olive oil on top won’t hurt, either.

big bowl o' pasta

Spaghetti alla Puttanesca

adapted from Patricia Wells’ Trattoria cookbook (a lovely cookbook, indeed)

serves 6

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
4 flat anchovy fillets cured in olive oil, minced
3 plump fresh garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or to taste
sea salt
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes in juice
15 salt-cured black olives, such as Italian Gaeta or French Nyons, pitted and halved
2 tablespoons capers, drained and rinsed
1 pound dried Italian imported spaghetti
1 cup flat leaf Italian parsley, coarsely chopped.
1/2 to 1 pound big, fat shrimp, peeled and deveined

In an unheated skillet large enough to hold the pasta later on, combine the oil, anchovies, garlic, crushed red peppers, and a pinch of salt, stirring to coat with the oil. Cook over moderate heat just until the garlic turns golden but does not brown, 2 to 3 minutes. Pour out a little of the juice from the can of tomatoes, maybe about half, then add the tomatoes with reserved juice into the pan, breaking up the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Add the olives and capers. Stir to blend, and simmer, uncovered, until the sauce begins to thicken, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning.

Meanwhile, in a large pot bring 6 quarts of water to a rolling boil. Add 3 tablespoons of salt and the spaghetti, stirring to prevent the pasta from sticking. Cook until tender but firm to the bite. Drain.

Add the drained pasta to skillet with the sauce. Season the shrimp with salt and pepper and add the shrimp to the pasta and sauce. Toss, then tuck the shrimp into the pasta and let it cook for 2-3 minutes, or until the shrimp is mostly done. Turn off the heat and let the sauce absorb into the pasta for another minute or so.  Add the parsley and toss. Serve immediately, passing parmesan cheese and olive oil at the table.

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In agrodolce

Have you all read the most recent Saveur? The feature on cooks in Rome, Eternal Pleasures, makes me want to literally bathe in agrodolce.

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And I’ll admit I came pretty close on Monday. Maiale in agrodolce. Cipolline in agrodolce. Together with some garlicky broccoli. It was pure bliss. Worth running out of the office to go home and make right now. Make some excuse. Tell your boss it’s an emergency. Maybe your kitten is stuck up a tree? It would be worth it, really, if you called your neighbor and asked if they would please stick your kitten (any kitten) up a tree so you could go home. Really.

cippolini onions

Worth it, even, if you don’t think you’re a fan of the sweet and savory combination.  I’ve learned that, in culinary terms, there’s nothing I’m not a fan of — if it’s the right recipe, that is. I mean, I really, really, really dislike foie gras if it’s not done right. But, recently, I licked my foie gras plate clean at Town House in Chilhowie. Oysters will make me gag on most occasions, but I’ve twice gobbled up my fair share, in the Outer Banks, and at Town House, too.  I don’t even like sweet and savory combined in most recipes, and yet here I am, raving about two agrodolce preparations, one for onions, one for pork. Remember when I mentioned that I could bathe in agrodolce? Just ask me if I was kidding.

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The “agro” in both is balsamic vinegar. I used a cheap one, so that it wouldn’t be too sweet on its own. For the onions, the “dolce” is regular white sugar and hydrated raisins; for the pork, it’s honey. Despite the similarities, the two agrodolces have their own flavors. Honey, butter, and rosemary create a round flavor, while the olive oil, sugar and raisins have a sweet tartness. The agrodolce sauce is a bit jumpier on the onions. Perfectly so, especially when you mix just a little bit of it into the honey-butter-rosemary agrodolce marinade you’ve made for the pork.

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You certainly don’t have to make the pork and onions for the same meal, but I thought they worked magic together. Add in this broccoli, and I would say it all works symphonically, if that didn’t risk revealing my extreme dorktitude. But I guess I already did that with the whole bathing in agrodolce thing…

Totally worth it.

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Sweet and Sour Glazed Pork Chops

Printable Recipe

from Saveur Magazine, Issue #128

serves 4

4 10-oz. bone-in pork chops
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1⁄3 cup balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. honey
4 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 sprig fresh rosemary, torn into 1″ pieces

Put pork chops on a plate; drizzle with oil; season generously with salt and pepper; let sit for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill or heat a gas grill to medium-high heat. Combine vinegar and honey in a 1-qt. saucepan and cook over medium heat until reduced to 1⁄4 cup. Stir in butter and rosemary and set aside.

Put pork chops on grill and cook, occasionally turning and basting with balsamic mixture, until browned and cooked through, 12–14 minutes. Transfer to a platter and let sit for 5 minutes before serving.

Sweet and Sour Onions

Printable Recipe

from Saveur Magazine, Issue #128

serves 4

1⁄2 cup raisins
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
1 1⁄2 lbs. cipolline onions, peeled
1⁄4 cup balsamic vinegar
1 1⁄2 tbsp. sugar
Kosher salt, to taste

Put raisins into a small bowl; cover with hot water and let soften for 30 minutes.

Heat oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Add onions and cook until golden brown, 8–10 minutes; pour off oil. Drain raisins. Add raisins, vinegar, and sugar and season with salt. Cook, stirring, until sauce thickens, 2–3 minutes.

Fiddlin’

Ok. I’m going to get right to it and list the ingredients that went into this dish, in the vain hope that you won’t immediately click away, that you’ll trust me that not only is this dish delicious, it’s not in anyway over-the-top, that it’s actually quite subtle, even with the coconut sauce, crab, curry, fiddlehead ferns, and hazelnuts that went into it.

It may seem like an odd combination, fiddlehead ferns, lemongrass, and hazelnuts, but I promise it isn’t.  The coconut sauce that covers the dish is light, airy, and very mild.  The toasted hazelnuts add warmth to the crisp flavors of fiddleheads and crab.  The sea bass, which is really interchangeable with any fish you can find, lends a touch of crispy brownness from the skin.  All in all, everything works.

The recipe made more coconut sauce than we needed, about half too much, but I’m looking forward to trying it as a base for a chowder this weekend, and you could certainly sub it in for the coconut milk here.

If you can find fiddlehead ferns, grab them up for this dish.  It would also work with green beans, but not nearly as well I think.  Fiddlehead ferns have an astringent brightness that’s not quite comparable to green beans, or anything else for that matter. Contrary to what the lovely, wonderful people I met this week think, fiddleheads are totally not overrated in my book. ; ) I like to steam them for about 10 minutes, to break down the fibrousness but make sure, however you cook them, to rinse them in a good lot of water two or three times, to get all the dirt that’s clinging in the tendrils.

And while I find this next statement thoroughly pull-your-hair-out, I don’t think you should bother with this dish unless you have a good source of crab.  Now by good source, I don’t mean you need to live in Seattle, or Maine, but it means that you should probably have a fish-monger, one in his very own storefront, not in the supermarket (well, some supermarkets are fine) and your crab should not come in a can.  While I think canned crab is fine for cakes, or cooked dishes, this crab is practically untouched, not cooked at all, and needs to taste like crab, not tin. If you don’t have a good fish guy, and you live in my area, my favorites are Buckingham Seafood and Heller’s.  And Nassau Seafood in Princeton is great, too.

If you can find good crab though, this is as good a preparation as any for it.  The curry lightly scents the crabmeat, whose sweetness is offset by the fiddleheads.  And the toasted hazelnuts and hazelnut oil add a fatty, crunchy bite.  After this dinner, I’m starting to believe that anything would benefit from toasted hazelnuts.  After this dinner, really, I’d believe anything.  It’s one of those happy-feeling meals, when you end it a little high, smiling, and excited; an out-of-the-box kind of meal that makes you start wildly wondering where you next meal will go.  Any ideas?

Black sea bass with fiddlehead ferns, curried crab, and hazelnuts

serves 6

for the crab salad

1/2 pound fiddlehead ferns, cleaned
1 pound freshly-picked crabmeat, picked over for shell pieces
1 bunch scallions, sliced
1 tsp Madras curry powder, or to taste
2 teaspoons lime juice
salt

for the coconut sauce

1 can unsweetened coconut milk
1 cup good chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 stalk lemongrass
1 dried bird’s eye chile
1 two-inch piece of ginger, sliced
salt, pepper

for the completed dish

6 fillets black sea bass, seasoned with salt and pepper
handful of hazelnuts, toasted and skins rubbed off with a kitchen towel

hazelnut oil

Steam cleaned fiddlehead ferns for 10 minutes of so, until tender.  In a medium bowl, combine crab, scallions, curry powder, and lime juice.  Add fiddleheads.  Season to taste with salt; set aside.

In a small saucepan combine coconut milk and stock, bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.  Add lemongrass, chile, and ginger and bring back to a boil.  Turn off heat and set aside for 40 minutes. (Can be made ahead.)  Once rested, run sauce through a sieve and discard solids.  Season with salt and pepper and heat back up on the stove for completed dish.

Add a touch of oil to a skillet and heat pan until almost smoking.  Add sea bass, skin side down, and cook for 4 minutes, pressing down on the skin for the first three minutes and then covering with a lid and steaming for the last minute. (You may need to do this in batches.)

Chop toasted hazelnuts.

Arrange crab salad on plates.  Place sea bass on top of crab salad and spoon warmed coconut sauce all over dish.  Top with toasted hazelnuts and a drizzling of hazelnut oil.  Season to taste with salt and serve.